Succession end game: The parallels between Uhuru and Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta (C) his deputy William Ruto (L) and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga hold hands in solidarity during the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative report at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on November 27, 2019.[Stafford Ondego, Standard]

There has been an unfamiliar trading of horses, as well as the arrival of completely new players

The passing on of veteran journalist Philip Ochieng is an astute opportunity to reflect on the parallels between the Jomo Kenyatta succession games and those of the Uhuru Kenyatta succession.

While Ochieng had done many outstanding things as a journalist, the publication of The Kenyatta Succession, jointly with Joseph Karimi, gave him a fresh relevance and a new lease of professional life in Kenya.  

Ochieng had only returned to Kenya after years in self-exile, partly as a factor of his confrontational engagement with the State, after he referred to the Kenyan nation as ‘a nation of sheep,’ in the wake of Kenya’s facilitation of the Israeli raid on Entebbe in November 1976.

He had also questioned Vice President Daniel Arap Moi’s intellectual depth and his capacity for serious discourse on the ideas that informed the Cold War debates.

The thrust of the Kenyatta Succession story as rendered in the Ochieng and Karimi book was in a sense an atonement for the past, a ‘Handshake moment’ between Ochieng and Moi.  

It is telling that the succession narrative would take to task a group of people denominated ‘the Kiambu Mafia’ for their spirited effort to derail Moi from the Kenyatta succession matrix.

There is the story of the shadowy Ngoroko bandits. They are said to have been an assassination squad, disguised as a special detachment of the police force.

Their leader, the Rift Valley Police Chief, James Mungai, fled the country when Moi became president, because of the manner in which he had been the brutal face of Moi’s frustrations as vice resident.

Apocryphal narratives abound. Some say that he used to stop the vice president’s motorcade between Nairobi and Nakuru. He would have the cars searched and Moi frisked and interrogated on the roadside.  

All this was part of a larger scheme to frustrate Kenyatta’s heir apparent into resignation so that someone else could take over.

The Constitution stated that in the event of the president being unable to undertake the duties of his office due to incapacity, death, or for whatever other legal cause, the vice president would take over in a ninety-day interregnum.

This worried political hopeful to no end, as Kenya’s first president continued to show signs of waning health. It was imperative that Moi should be precluded from the race to the most powerful office in the land. 

It is a paradox that Ochieng who had fled the country because of an incident with the State would write about Mungai’s own flight from the country because of incidents with the State – or at any rate incidents with the new person at the centre of power.

Ochieng and Mungai were two unlikely sides of the coin of antipathy towards Moi. One was purely intellectual and academic antipathy while the other was antipathy of a more practical and sinister aspect.

One questioned the intellectual depth and comprehension of the great leaders of the day. The other was a visceral and ethnic antipathy that questioned why this man should ascend to power. Interesting parallels, convergences and differences exist between the Jomo Kenyatta succession games and the ongoing Uhuru Kenyatta succession drama.  

Jostling to succeed Kenya’s founding president began almost as soon as he took power. There were those who looked at him as an ailing old man who would not live for long. A lot of political posturing as early as the 1960s played around succession schemes. They played themselves out in Parliament and outside. In Parliament, laws were made and the Constitution changed several times over, as part of the schemes.

Outside Parliament, politicians checked one another and formed competing power-seeking alliances. Historian Charles Hornsby recalls that in Tom Mboya’s last twelve months in 1968 – 69, the ruling party Kanu was openly divided along two succession camps.

There was what was called the Gatundu Group and the Mboya Group. The Gatundu Group was also known as ‘Kanu A.’ It was fronted by Vice President Moi, while Mboya led ‘Kanu B.’ This very much resembles the Kieleweke and Tangatanga groups in today’s ruling Jubilee Party, pulling in different directions. 

Later, after Moi came to power as president, there would emerge incarnations of Kanu A and ‘Kanu B,’ in yet new succession games.

For now, Moi fronted a group with Attorney General Charles Njonjo, Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Njoroge Mungai, Minister of State in the Office of the President Mbiyu Koinange, Defence Minister James Gichuru and Agriculture Minister Bruce McKenzie.

They backed Moi for the presidency, having grossly underrated his political acumen, on account of his modest education and self-effacing tendencies at board meetings. The succession team around Mboya included such personalities as Ministers Ronald Ngala, Samuel Ayodo, Jeremiah Nyaggah, Lawrence Sagini, Ngala Mwendwa and Joseph Otiende.

Their first open confrontation played out in a 1968 Kanu leadership contest for the Nairobi branch of the party. Mboya’s candidate, Dr Munyua Waiyaki, lost to Moi’s Charles Rubia. The effort to whittle down Mboya moved to the party branches outside Nairobi, with differing degrees of success against Eric Khasakhala (Western), Ngala (Coast), Mwendwa (kitui) and Jackson Angaine (Meru). 

A Kanu national delegates conference that was planned for 1968 with the intent of removing Mboya as Secretary General was called off at the eleventh hour.

Meanwhile as vice president and Minister for Home Affairs, Moi deported Mboya’s four American and German allies under mysterious circumstances. Mboya, the one man who had outwitted Odinga out of Kanu in 1966 was himself now the target of political annihilation.

Like Deputy President William Ruto in the period 2018 to date, Mboya was steadily losing grip of the party he had helped to form in 1960. Like Ruto, he was also losing his strategic place in the Kenyatta succession through a party he had worked so hard for. 

One story that remains largely untold outside history classes at higher levels is that Odinga, who had formed the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) in 1966, after Mboya politically humiliated him and his followers at the February Limuru Conference, was trying to come back to Kanu in 1968.

Although KPU had won seats in Luo Nyanza and a couple in Ukambani, it was rather clear that a struggle against Kanu was an uphill assignment.

Odinga started trying to negotiate his way back into Kanu and prime himself for the Kenyatta succession as an insider in the establishment. He wrote to President Kenyatta seeking a reconciliation meeting, but the letters were ignored. 

Both Mboya and Moi did not want Odinga to return to Kanu, despite their own internal rifts and toxic competitions. Mboya continued humiliating Odinga, insisting that if he wanted to return to Kanu, he should talk to him as the party secretary general, and not to the president.

For his part, Moi told a public gathering in November 1968 that if Odinga wanted to return to Kanu, he should do so unconditionally. He should apply for membership like anybody else and swallow the Kanu policy without spelling out conditions to the party and its leaders.

It was clear that Odinga would only be humiliated further, possibly being denied a seat in the party hierarchy. He elected to forge on with his KPU.

Meanwhile Mboya’s politics ended on Saturday 5 July 5, 1969, when an assassin stopped him with three fatal bullets.  

OUT of the picture

With Mboya out of the game, focus shifted on Moi and a new entrant, Nyandarwa North Member of Parliament, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki.

Daniel Branch of Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, A History 1963 – 2011 refers to the maverick populist politician as ‘Kenya’s fallen angel.’

JM, as he was popularly known engaged the minds of those planning to succeed President Kenyatta for the period 1970 – 1975, on account of his perceived wide acceptance across the country. The self-appointed representative of the poor troubled the establishment with his recurrent pro-poor public pronouncements.

Branch has suggested that in the event that Mzee Kenyatta should exit the stage, it was feared that JM could steal the show all the way, with his populism. His life was cut short in March 1975. His mutilated body was found in Ngong Forest, bringing to an end the life and political career of yet another star player in the intrigues of Kenya’s succession drama. 

The searchlight now fell squarely on the vice president, Moi. He had all four aces. He had had all the time to traverse the country building strategic political alliances, as he toured various projects on behalf of Mzee Kenyatta.

His was the quintessential ‘Tangatanga’ style. Unlike Deputy President Ruto today, there were no quibbles about his roving across the national terrain. It was clearly understood that he was working for the president.

His international travels, again representing the president, had given him significant contacts around the globe. Added to this, Moi had accumulated some reasonable wealth to make him a formidable contender in the Kenyatta succession.

Finally, he was the choice of the Gatundu Group. The stars were properly aligned for him. Yet Moi would never mention the possibility of succeeding the president. Even his worst enemies would be least worried, you would expect. Yet it did not go that way.

As anxiety began mounting about the president’s failing health, another group from Kiambu came to the centre stage. It split the Gatundu Group into two, introducing the Kiambu Mafia that Ochieng deals with at length in his succession book. 

Ochieng and Karimi make allegations about a Ngoroko plot to assassinate Gatundu Group luminaries. This has never been substantiated, however. 

Now Gichuru abandoned Moi, to be part of the mafia. Others were the powerful GEMA chair, Njenga Karume, Mungai and Housing Minister, Paul Ngei.

The Rift Valley-based land-buying magnate, Kihika Kimani was their sounding board. They purposed to change the Constitution so that the vice president would not automatically take over for 90 days, if the President died in office. 

They were unlucky, however, for Njonjo was firmly behind Moi. Also behind Moi were Kibaki and Assistant Minister Stanley Oloitiptip. His now-famous warning on the dangers of imagining the president’s death put a stop to the clamour for the Constitution to be varied. The rest is history. 

Today the drama goes on with a new generation of players. President Uhuru, Raila Odinga, Gideon Moi and Susan Kihika, are scions of some of the key players of the gone times.

The mix has changed significantly if the present games around the Building Bridges Initiative is anything to go by.

There has been an unfamiliar trading of horses, as well as the arrival of completely new players like the ANC leader, Musalia Mudavadi and former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka.

It will be interesting to see how they play the rest of the game. Both the substance and style of the day bring up memories of gone times, with the exception that we have not witnessed some of the tragedies of yester times, and probably there will be none. 

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